- Associated Press - Sunday, November 8, 2015

AMHERST, Mass. (AP) - Even in what is considered a well-to-do state like Massachusetts, one in three households are considered food insecure, with adults and sometimes children not knowing where they will get their next meal.

The easiest way to address this hunger epidemic may be to ensure that workers earn enough so they are not making choices between food and other expenses, according to presenters at a day-long conference Friday at the University of Massachusetts Campus Center which focused on hunger in the state.

“We say right off the bat that Massachusetts needs to support a living wage,” said Winton Pitcoff, project manager for the Massachusetts Food System Plan.

Pitcoff was among those speaking at the Food for Good conference, where more than 200 professionals - from food pantry supervisors to farmers and state officials - gathered to discuss sustainable, long-term solutions to ending hunger in the state.

The conference was called by Congressman James McGovern, D-Worcester, who has championed efforts to end hunger, and was coordinated by Community Action of the Franklin, Hampshire and North Quabbin Region.

Christina Maxwell, director of programs at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts in Hatfield, said she appreciated the conference and being with others who work to improve food access.

“This is a great opportunity to learn from each other and to find solutions to common problems,” Maxwell said.

But solving those problems will take time, she said. “A lot of exciting things are going on across the state, but a lot of work still needs to be done,” Maxwell added.

The current situation was illustrated by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the most extensive federal program aimed at ensuring that low-income families are able to eat. Many households in Massachusetts that should be eligible, though, are unable to access the program.

Patricia Baker, senior policy analyst for the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, estimated that 550,000 individuals who could qualify for SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, are not in the program.

Pitcoff explained that the food system plan for the state has four main goals, many of which are already occurring in the Pioneer Valley.

The goals include increasing locally grown food, providing more jobs in farming, protecting farmland and keeping god soil in agricultural use, and reducing hunger.

He encouraged schools to resume teaching home economics, so children learn basic cooking skills. He also urged increased funding for food pantries and meal programs, and called for improvements to public transportation so people can get to a supermarket or farmers market.

Ellen Vollinger, legal director for the federal Food Research and Action Center, said 48.1 million Americans are food insecure - a number that has changed little since the depths of the recession in 2008.

“It doesn’t look like we’re on a great path to end the problem,” Vollinger said.

But Vollinger said her organization’s belief is that hunger is a solvable issue, through work that includes more jobs and better wages, state and local partnerships to leverage federal nutrition resources and building the political will - which can start with those who attended Friday’s conference.

“I think you can really be leaders of a national movement,” Vollinger said.

Sarah Cluggish, senior adviser to Project Bread, said addressing the underlying issues is important. That means focusing on legislative avenues to pursue a living wage, education and training, housing and child care.

Just having a job isn’t enough to prevent hunger, Cluggish said. “No matter how hard they work, people living in poverty can’t make ends meet,” she added.

An estimated 300,000 children do not have good access to food, said Maddie Ribble, director of policy and campaign strategy for the Massachusetts Public Health Association.

The association’s Massachusetts Food Trust program, he said, is pushing to have Gov. Charlie Baker authorize a $2 million bond that supports increasing healthy food retailers in low- and moderate-income communities, whether supermarkets, farmers markets or food trucks.

Much of the advocacy that could be done would be at the state level, including support for a bill that would allow people who apply and receive MassHealth to simultaneously apply for SNAP benefits.

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Information from: Daily Hampshire Gazette (Northampton, Mass.), http://www.gazettenet.com

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